Seven reasons progressives should be more libertarian

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Matt Zwolinski
Associate Professor, University of San Diego
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      Matt Zwolinski

      Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and founder of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.

I am a bleeding heart libertarian. Like libertarians in general, I believe in free markets, private property, strong civil liberties and limited government. But unlike standard libertarians, and like progressives, I believe in social justice. I believe, in other words, that the legitimacy of political and economic institutions depends on their being justifiable to all persons who are subject to them, including, and perhaps especially including, the poor and vulnerable.

Bleeding heart libertarians are fighting a philosophical battle on two fronts. On one front, we are trying to convince other libertarians to take the idea of social justice seriously. For me, the fact that respect for private property rights and free markets generally serves the interest of the poor is not just a happy coincidence, it is an essential element in the justification of those institutions. And this means, at least as I understand it, that when and if libertarian institutions fail to meet this justificatory challenge, they must be modified or abandoned. Thus, for me, there is a strong connection between being a bleeding heart libertarian and being a classical liberal, rather than a strict minimal state libertarian. In principle, at least, we must be open to the possibility that activities beyond the scope of the minimal state, such as public goods provision or redistribution, will be not only permissible but morally mandatory.

Making this case to my fellow libertarians is important, but it is not the task I undertake here. In this post, I want to make an initial advance on the second front — convincing progressives that they ought to be more libertarian. I believe that many of the moral values embraced by progressives are better realized by political and economic institutions endorsed by libertarians. In this respect, the difference between libertarians and progressives is over means, not ends. Of course, values matter too, and some values such as economic liberty and opposition to coercion have become so closely associated with libertarianism as to seem distinctive of it. But this, I hope to show, is a mistake. Progressives have good reason to embrace these values too, not necessarily as substitutes for their own fundamental commitments, but at least as supplements to them.

One essay will not turn a progressive into Milton Friedman. But my goal here is more modest. What I want to do is convince progressives to be more libertarian than they currently are. In other words, I think progressives should, at the margin, be more willing to trust the realization of their values to free markets and the voluntary actions of civil society, and less willing to trust them to government. Here are seven reasons why.

1) Government is coercive. You’ve probably heard libertarians claim that “taxation is theft.” Or possibly even that universal health care is slavery. And, if you’re like most non-libertarians, you probably rolled your eyes and wrote this off as, at best, irresponsible hyperbole. But whatever you think of these slogans, they contain an important element of truth. Government is coercive. When government decides that wealthy Peter should give some money to poor Paul, it doesn’t just ask. It demands. And its demands are backed by the threat of fines, which themselves are backed by the threat of imprisonment, which in turn is backed by the threat of physical force. The same is true of every restriction on speech, diet or commerce that the government imposes. It is true that all but extreme pacifists believe that the use of force against individuals is sometimes morally justifiable. But we should likewise recognize that it is a serious matter, all the more so for the fact that the coerciveness of government’s rules is often obscured by its social acceptability and legal formality. It is a hallmark of political liberalism that people with different tastes, religions and moral commitments should be able to live together under a regime of peaceful toleration. All of us accept that it is wrong for us as individuals to use violence against our neighbors to get them to do the things we think they ought to do. Is it really so much less wrong when the violence is committed by the government instead?